The Ancient Myth That Rules College Sports - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Ancient Myth That Rules College Sports

The Ancient Myth That Rules College Sports

By Sean Braswell

Olympic Games, 1896. Preparation for the 100-meter race. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


Because not all ancient Greek myths are harmless stories.

By Sean Braswell

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “amateur ideal” stands on shakier ground than ever following a federal judge’s ruling in August that the NCAA rules against paying college athletes violate U.S. antitrust laws. In appealing the O’Bannon decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the NCAA argues that the ruling “vitiates” collegiate America’s long-held “principle of amateurism” because those “who are paid to play are not amateurs, whether they are paid $30,000 or $300,000.”

But the ideal of amateurism to which the NCAA so fiercely clings has been in doubt for quite a while, starting well before the O’Bannon case or even when the Olympics opened its doors to professional athletes in the 1970s. In fact, from the ancient Greeks onward, compensated, “professional” athletes have been the norm in the sporting world, with amateurism being a relatively recent — and extremely problematic — invention.

Modern athletes, like their ancient counterparts, “must not prostitute the vigor of their youth for gold,” proclaimed Paul Shorey, a classical scholar educated at Harvard, on the eve of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Shorey’s view that amateur athletics had noble roots in the ancient world was widespread among scholars, Olympic officials and college administrators at the time. It was also almost entirely false.

“The amateur/professional distinction is a 19th-century invention, and has no basis in the reality of ancient Greek sports,” Owen Goslin, a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells OZY. “In fact there is no word in ancient Greek for ‘amateur.’”

As depicted in the funeral games held for Achilles’ fallen friend Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad, ancient Greek contests invariably involved a range of prizes, and Greek athletes expected such rewards. Far from amateurs, those athletes, according to the late classical scholar David C. Young — whose influential work The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics debunked the myth of ancient amateurism — “openly profited from athletics whenever they could.” The winner of the men’s stadion (192-meter sprint) at the Panathenaic games in Athens, for example, received 80 amphoras of olive oil, which Goslin says was likely to “be traded or converted to cash.” Even when victors only received symbolic prizes, such as an olive wreath, at the Games, they could usually look forward to lucrative rewards from their home city: Some Athenian Olympic winners received 500 drachmas (almost $1 million today), and free meals for life on the public’s dime.

Some Athenian Olympic winners received free meals for life on the public’s dime.

So if the “amateur athlete” was an unknown commodity in the ancient world, when did he come into being? Young dates amateurism to 19th-century England, when sports like soccer, rowing, prizefights and cricket became more popular, putting upper- and lower-class men face-to-face on the field and in the locker room, something the “gentlemen” found difficult to stomach. “More importantly,” quips Young, “they found it difficult to win.” 

The upper classes preferred competing among themselves at college, and at newly formed, exclusive clubs such as the first Amateur Athletic Club, established in London in 1866 and closed to anyone who was a “mechanic, artisan, or labourer.” Soon “amateur” (an 18th-century French term meaning “lover of”) became synonymous with “gentleman” and “professional” with “working class,” and even as membership bans were dropped, it became clear that only men of a certain class could afford to play sport for sport’s sake with no expectation of reward.

It was this class-distinctive “amateur ideal” that would spread to the Ivy League and collegiate sports in America, and the early Olympic Games as well, with proponents such as Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who established the modern Olympics in 1896, leveraging the myth of ancient amateurism to win support from wealthy patrons. But the International Olympic Committee, which once stripped the legendary Jim Thorpe of his medals from the 1912 Games because he had played semi-pro baseball one summer, eventually relaxed its rules to allow professionals to compete, expunging the word amateur from its charter in 1986.

Meanwhile, the NCAA, now supervising a multibillion-dollar industry, continues to espouse the same antiquated “principle” that enabled those glorious white, Anglo-Saxon Harvard-Yale football games of yore. Collegiate inventors can earn money for their inventions, student interns and researchers can be paid for their work, but student athletes — compensated with a conditional education — find themselves on the wrong side of a rather arbitrary restriction as anti-competitive today as it was when it kept mechanics off the cricket pitch.

As noted historian Taylor Branch has argued, “Without logic or practicality or fairness to support amateurism, the NCAA’s final retreat is to sentiment.” A sentiment, it might be added, that would have been lost on the ancient Greeks.

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